Wednesday, 11 July 2007

UKDA 40th Birthday: back to basics?

There are not many digital data management organisations that can claim 40 years of continuous service. This week the UK Data Archive (UKDA, which holds mainly social science datasets) celebrates 40 years since its founding in 1967, with a party yesterday in the House of Commons followed by a small workshop in the UKDA’s fancy new quarters at the University of Essex. The DCC would like to congratulate the UKDA, Director Kevin Schurer and his 6 predecessor Directors, and the UKDA staff, on achieving this milestone.

[Pause to suppress pangs of envy at such longevity. Sigh!]

There were many very interesting aspects to this workshop, but here I will focus on one particular contribution, during the closing sessions, from Myron Gutmann. Myron is Director of ICPSR, a roughly equivalent organisation in the US, based at Michigan. Myron said he wanted to argue for retaining the basics. A data archive, he said, should do (at least) 5 things:
  • Appraise
  • Curate
  • Preserve
  • Train
  • Protect
This is not quite the language of OAIS, but perhaps closer to the language of archives. Appraise because everything an archive does is expensive, so it has a responsibility to select high quality resources appropriate to its mission (and as OAIS might suggest, its Designated Community). Curate because (apparently) even the best resources tend to need extensive work to make the usable (this work includes making the contextual and other metadata about the resource usable by non-insiders; we might perhaps describe this perhaps as preservation metadata, maybe as part of its representation information). Preserve for obvious reasons, to make resources available in the long term (although some people at the workshop seemed to be using the word in a special sense: institutional repositories are not about preservation, said someone, although I may have mis-quoted). Train, because these resources are specialist, and often need significant work and extra knowledge on the part of users. And protect, both as protection of the intellectual property in the resource, but more importantly protecting the subjects of the data, whose sensitive data must be made available only under appropriate conditions.

It’s a pretty good summary of the job of an archive, give or take a verb or two. Myron added something like “serve new user bases” and “innovate” in various ways, and it’s hard to argue with.

There were some sober reflections on sustainability at the workshop, partly relating to the difficult funding position for long-term longitudinal surveys, but partly reflecting the recent AHRC decisions. Paraphrasing Kevin Schurer, we never could or should take things for granted, but now we must be doubly persuasive, even if the UKDA's main funder ESRC regards ESDS (of which UKDA is a key part) as “a jewel in its crown”.


Post a Comment

Please note that this blog has a Creative Commons Attribution licence, and that by posting a comment you agree to your comment being published under this licence. You must be registered to comment, but I'm turning off moderation as an experiment.